Midway through college, Brian Ung was still trying to find himself, searching for a campus community that fit his identity and pursuits.
“I still felt very lost after my sophomore year in college,” he says. “That’s what drew me to my fraternity.”
Ung had first turned to student groups. As a first-year student, he joined the Business Association of Multicultural Students and served on its board. He spent spring break on a service trip with the nonprofit group Students Today Leaders Forever. He had great experiences but kept searching for the right community.
Then he learned about the University’s chapter of Sigma Lambda Beta International Fraternity, Inc., a Latino-based and multiculturally focused Greek organization.
Sigma Lambda Beta works to increase cultural awareness and tackle social justice issues on campus. Ung’s fraternity brothers helped him find confidence, forge his own path, and take care of his mental health.
“I love hanging out with them because it requires me not to put a mask on,” he says. “A lot of those relationships helped me be myself in spaces that I couldn’t be.”
Leadership and relationships
For Ung, relationships with peers and mentors have been a key to college success. Through the University’s leadership minor—a cross-disciplinary program of the College of Education and Human Development, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and the Office for Student Affairs—Ung met graduate student Leonard Taylor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development (OLPD).
Ung looked up to Taylor as a successful man of color in the academic world. Taylor’s energy and passion for higher education helped Ung realize his own goals in the field.
“He taught me to be really unapologetic for who I am and how I show up in the world,” says Ung.
Ung also credits the leadership minor with igniting his interest in the world of higher education. The program trains students in service-based leadership and empowerment by incorporating field experiences with theories of leadership that promote social change.
“Leadership courses differ from the University’s norm,” Ung says. Students benefit from the classes’ small size and emphasis on community. During his third year, Ung became a teaching assistant in the program.
“In that experience I really got to see and discover my passion for higher education,” says Ung. “It’s a way for us to revolutionize how higher education actually is.”
In addition to his work in the leadership minor, Ung is an assistant in the Office for Student Affairs (OSA), where he helps staff working on projects. Recently, he collected data and conducted research for an OSA initiative aimed at bettering the experiences of first-year students on campus.
Before he came to college, Ung says his dad taught him about tenacity and perseverance. His ancestors came from China, and his father lived in Cambodia before beginning an arduous journey to the United States.
“My father escaped from Cambodia, then moved to Vietnam, then to a refugee camp in Malaysia, and then to the United States,” says Ung. “He talks about a lot of sacrifice.”
Growing up, Ung heard many of his father’s stories. As a young adult he recognized their influence on his attitude and goals.
“I realized that was my motivation to get through things: that my dad went through worse, and I can do even more,” he says. “‘If my dad can get through that, I can get through this,’ was what I told myself.”
Ung will graduate next year with a degree in business and marketing education (BME) and two minors, in leadership and in Asian American studies. He has no plans to leave the world of higher education, though. A first-generation college student, Ung hopes to stay in the field and help improve the experience for future scholars.
“I want to fill the gaps that I felt as a student so that other students don’t have to go through the same things,” says Ung, “whether that be access or conversations around hard things like mental health—those are the things I want to hear and see more often.”
Ung looks forward to pursuing several paths after graduation. He wants to continue into grad school and get an advanced degree in higher education to work with student affairs, student engagement, and Greek life on a deeper level. But he’s also interested in using his BME degree to be a consultant or a social media analyst or to create his own start-up.
“Your major doesn’t define the rest of your life—that’s a misconception,” says Ung. “You can major in anything, but if you want a good program, CEHD offers great things.”
Ung knows his dedication to leadership, service, and community won’t ever leave him. He’s lucky to be where he is, he says, because college isn’t always accessible to everyone.
Whichever path he takes, Ung hopes to continue empowering others and opening doors, especially to the world of higher education.
“If your parents don’t know how to do it, if you’re a first-generation student, find the resources,” he says. “Help your parents walk through the process because that’s how they can support you.”
Learn more about the business and marketing education program, the leadership minor, and the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development.
Story by Ellen Fee | Photo by Brian Ung | July 2016